I had recently moved to the Yorkshire Dales with my rescue dog, Splash, so-named for his love of puddles, and this summer past we had ambled through the woodland on long walks on a weekend. He would always dart ahead, rustling through the leaf litter for insects or fallen branches, while I meandered behind, taking photos to share with my friends back in the city. We had traversed this particular patch of wood before but never before had I seen the wych elm. Knotted and lifeless, it towered over the bracken like a rotten hand. It was Splash who found it, and he sniffed around the roots as I caught up, my camera a heavy weight around my neck.
The tree was tall and somewhat misplaced among the lush greenery of the wood. I noticed in my approach that the trunk was heavily scarred and moving closer still saw that the scars were man made. Names and dates. Lou G + Paul, 1992. Niall and Lee, 1977. Mary K and Roy L, 1954. I ran my fingers over the crudely scratched names with a sense of borrowed nostalgia. I imagined generations of young couples meeting at this apparent beauty spot that I never knew existed. The names stretched back decades and the oldest I could find, now faint and barely legible near the detritus, was over one hundred years old. Hattie and Ira, 1883. I began to snap away, circling the wide trunk while Splash zig-zagged in and out of my legs. A deep hollow cut into the tree on the opposite side and as I leaned in with my camera my heart stopped. I dropped the camera and squinted at the names etched on the ridge of the hole.
Loubella Fitzroy + John McC, 1984.
Sometimes a memory, of a time or a place or a person, hooks into your mind like a barb and you can go through your whole life never recalling it. But there it remains, and all it takes for the barb to be pulled is a familiar image, or an overheard word, or a name carved into a tree. That is how it was for me when I saw the name of my aunt Belle and her then-boyfriend John McClean, who had died in a car crash in Canada in the early eighties, back when I was just a boy.
I had never really known Belle, and tracing my memories I can bring forth a face but whether it belonged to her or was just a composite of my own creation, I could not say. Belle was my aunt on my father’s side, the “Canadian side of the family”. My father met my mother, native to these shores, while she was travelling through North America in the 1970’s, and eventually they moved back to England where they raised a family. What left me feeling at odds, there by the wych elm, was that father’s siblings and parents rarely visited the UK. As far as I knew, Belle never left Toronto and yet here was her name carved into a tree in the heart of the Dales.
In a strange way I was morbidly excited. My mother and father moved from Toronto to London, where they raised my brother and my sister and I. It seemed that Belle had visited us when I would have been three years old, and by chance she had happened to travel to the part of the country in which I now lived. It was an incredible coincidence. I rushed home and gave Splash a bath, and once I had cleaned the mud splatter from the bathroom tiles I called my mum and asked her about it.
“Oh I haven’t heard that name in a while!” she said when I told her of my discovery. “But that can’t be her. Belle never came to the UK. The only time you two met was when we spent Christmas there in what was it 1982? Or 1981? When you were only two or three I think. How old are you again?”
She rambled on in that way, and I tried to veer the conversation back but each time she dismissed it. But how many Loubella Fitzroys could there be, let alone one who courted someone by the name of John McC? I finished up the conversation and set about re-touching the photographs I had taken, each time flicking back to the shot of Belle’s name. I waited until later in the evening, all the while Googling ‘time in Toronto’ until I felt confident that he had put my grandma to bed, and called my father. Working through the usual pleasantries, the how-are-you’s and what’s-the-weather-like, I told him about my discovery. The line went silent.
“Where is this tree?” he asked at last.
I told him, or I began to, as before I could finish he interjected.
“Cut it down.”
“What? I can’t just cut down trees in a National Park, dad.”
“Just cut it down, right now.”
“What’s wrong? Did Belle visit then? It’s pretty remarkable that she-”
“They never left Toronto. Please cut it down. For me,” he urged, and I sensed the panic in his voice.
I promised that I would, right away as he suggested, and hearing how troubled the topic made him I decided not to push matters. I finished the call and went to bed although I did not sleep. Thoughts of the wych elm swam in my mind, of Belle and John carving their names into the tree. Tragic young lovers, carving their names into history in the year that they would be taken from us.
They never left Toronto.
Those words, my father’s fearful tone. How could that be? Every evening after work, after taking Splash home from his walks, I set about researching. I called my brother, my sister. Neither knew and neither seemed really to care. I contacted other relatives in Canada through Facebook and all were convinced that Belle had never left Canada. I became obsessed with the mystery and yet ran into dead ends until I received a message from someone I did not know.
Have you found the wych elm?
I was taken aback, my heart racing. I immediately accepted the message request and looked through the profile. It was an older woman, Joy Martin, who looked to be in her 50’s and who was a mutual friend of a cousin who I had contacted earlier.
Yes. I found a tree with my aunt’s name carved into it in the woods near where I live.
Cut it down.
I stared at my screen, tired and lost down a rabbit hole of my own making.
What do you mean? My dad told me to do the same thing but I can’t just go cutting down trees. Did you know Belle?
I waited. No response. After thirty minutes of refreshing Messenger I was interrupted by Splash, who stood by my office door with his lead dangling from his mouth. I was somewhat glad to get out of the house, and together we walked around the village. I did not go to the woods. Thinking of walking that way made me feel uneasy. When I returned home I saw that I had a new message from Joy.
I knew Belle, yes. We went to high school together. John was a bit older. We never liked him much. There was a rumor, one of those urban legend things, about a tree that just appears sometimes. The legend says that if you’re going around with a boy or a girl and carve your name into the tree that it will test your love. If you both love the other then nothing will happen. But if your love is not true you will die a horrible death. We thought it was a bunch of baloney of course but then Belle goes on and says they found the thing. Well, being a curious bunch we went on with them and there it was, right out in a farmer’s field. They go on and cut their names into the damned thing and sure enough a week later they were dead. A drunk driver going the wrong way on the highway if I remember right. A bunch of us decided to go back to the tree, to make a mural out of it to them both, but when we got there it was gone. Just vanished. I know it sounds silly but it’s troubled me ever since. Please cut it down.
I was stunned. Trees simply don’t appear and disappear and more than anything they certainly don’t claim the lives of young couples. It was absurd. I replied with thanks, and promised that yes, I would cut down the tree. And yet the image of the wych elm haunted me, bored into my mind and left me feeling cold. I Googled the names from the photos, each time coming up short until I searched for “Mary K” and “Roy L”. A search result appeared from one of those ancestry sites, with an archived news story of one Mary Kilkenny and Roy Lanchbury, of Cork, Ireland, who had died in a house fire in 1954. It couldn’t be true. It couldn’t be true. I ploughed on, searching name after name and then more stories appeared of young couples dying by way of drowning, of suicide, of murder. I started searching for “wych elm urban legends”, “tree urban legends”, anything I could. At last I found a link to an old Angelfire site, now defunct. I pasted the link into the Wayback Machine and found an archived page from the late 90’s.
The page was crudely put together, one of those old counters at the bottom showing “000127” visitors. The header, in garish green font on black starry background read “The Lover’s Tree”. It told of a tree in New England on which young couples carve their names to test the strength of their love. So said the anonymous writer, the tree was supposedly haunted by Hattie James, a young woman who had fallen in love with a local boy by the name of Ira Newton. Hattie’s remains were found in the tree in the winter of 1883, and soon after Ira was tried and executed for her murder.
Hattie and Ira, 1883.
I grabbed my coat and hurried out toward the woods. It was dark and I lost my bearings here or there, the susurration of the leaves disturbed by the gathering wind sounding like names whispered on the wind. Hattie, Ira, Belle. I struggled through the wood until at last I came to the clearing where once the wych elm stood but stood no longer. This was the place, I was sure of it, but there was no longer a tree there. No roots, no hole in the ground. Just leaf litter and bracken. I raced home and opened my laptop, awakening Splash with my clumsiness who then barked and skittered about as though it were time for a walk.
“Not now, not now please.”
I opened the pictures in my editor. The tree was there, it’s twisting branches seeming now more horrible than when I had last seen them. And the trunk was bare. No names scratched into the surface. I clicked through, unbelieving, and to my horror there were only close-up shots of plain, decaying bark. I clicked on the picture that I had taken of Belle’s name carved on the edge of the hollow. Her name was not there. I sat back in my chair, my mind swimming. And then it caught my eye. I leaned closer, brightened the image, increased the saturation, played around with the levels, but it was still just too dark, just out of focus. I am sure that there, from within the hollow on the very edge of the image, were fingers reaching out from the dark.
Credit : Atlas Fitzgerald
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